Whats happening in P+T
THE TECHNICIANS dispute in the Post Office has done the country and the Government one great service: by highlighting the gross deficiencies in the way the country's telecommunications service is managed, it has created the public climate in which the Government's election commitment to reform the Post Office can be speedily executed.
The problem the strike has glaringly revealed is a simple one: new wine in an old bottle.
A productivity claim that is still inching its way forward in negotiation after six years, in one of the fastest growing and most exciting areas of scientific and technological advance, has been one of the main factors behind the Post Office Engineering Unions strike.
Domestic phone users, and telex operators are entitled to ask themselves now, as the dispute heads towards a reesumption of normal workkis the way the Post Office handled the technicians' dispute a guide to the way the country's telecommunicaations service is working? Is there a connection between the standard of service given the public in his phone and telex service, and the grievances felt by the IPOEU. The probability is that the answer is yes, and that the time is long overdue for major strucctural reform of the Post Office.
There is every reason why a disenchanted public would chose to ignore such factors. The technicians dispute has caused severe disruption and economic hardship, and the tendency to blame the strikking union,. which is in the public service and, therfore , in secure employment, is connsiderable. The acts of sabottage at the Central Telephone Exchange in February didn't help the unions' case. Yet, the IPOEU have had a genuine grievance which is long standding; the battle of the past weeks has been rehearsed several times before, and has been coming fot years. Even today a return to work, should the men agree it, will solve little in itself.
As far back as 1975, the technicians were becoming frustrated at delays in proocessing their re-organisation and productivity claim. The claim was lodged in 1972, and changes were proceeding, new equipment was being inntroduced, new work practices implemented, without any financial reward. There were several conflicts in 1975 xculminiating in a week-long strike over garaging and acccommodation at a new depot at Walkinstown, Co Dublin, in early 197 6. The accommoodation in question had been promised and agreed two years earlier in 197 3. When it hadn't been provided, the men obbjected to using the depot for garaging - feeling, presumably it was the thin end of the wedge, and they would be forced to use the depot fully before the accommodation was installed. The striking feature of the conflict was the absence of trust between technicians and the Post Office. The same factor had dominated events since. Their claim delayed, changes being implemented under their feet, their men constantly suspennded for indiscipline - the techhnicians have been building up their resentment.
The IPOEU isn't the only group to suffer from the slowwness of procedures in the Post Office. .One claim, a 2.4% pay relativity increase for lower grades in the Post Office has been going through the scheme of conciliation and arbitration since April 1971, according to the Post Officials' Association. It's still winding its way through minutes and meetings; the amount in question is 54p a week.
Apart from slowness, the scheme prohibits negotiation with a group that departs from the normal procedures; in other words, no negotiation the one time that it is most needed. The regulations also insist that disputed work be nonetheless performed, 'unnder protest'.
A close read of the slim, 90 page volume, Staff Rules of the Post Office, gives some hint of the problem its memmbers encounter. The rules have a clumsy, patronising tone that staff resent, and see mirrored in the manner of their treatment.
For example: 'Permission to smoke in corridors, toilets or separate locker rooms cannot be granted generally, and has to be considered in the light of possible fire risk at individual premises. Offficers are warned against careless disposal of lighted matches, cigarette ends, hot ashes etc. Such acts of neggligence will be treated as a serious breach of discipline.'
Rule 49 goes on: 'The privilege of smoking, whether on Post Office premises or on duty outside Post Offices will' be withdrawn if abused.'
Rule 154 states: 'If a posttman in the course of his offficial duties is bitten, or has 'reason to fear that he may be bitten by a dog, he should, if possible report the matter orally to the owner of the dog or to a member of his household.'
Rule 59 (c) states: 'A posttman questioned about postal arrangements or missing corrrespondence, if unable to ansswerthe questions, should reefer the matter to an Maistir Poist or other appropriate offficer .'
More serious are the restriictions on trade union activity and organisation. Paragraph six, for example, of the scheme of conciliation and arbitration says that a staff association may have recoggnition withdrawn from it if it 'sponsors or resorts to any form of public agitation as a means of furthering claims or seeking redress for grievances which are appropriate to be dealt with through the scheme.'
The Fianna Fail Governnment committed itself in the election not only to revising the rules and regulations of the Post Office, but also to considering whether the teleecommunications section of'.it should become independent No government has been preepared to devote the amount of time and energy needed to effect so big a structural c change as creating a new semiistate body from inside the Post Office. Mr. Faulkner, though he has worked harder, and to greater effect in this dispute than he has been given credit for, is hardly the man to bring .it about. He is not a cabinet member with enough force of personality, or imaagination, or clout. If the Post Office is to give birth to a new Telecommunications Authority - as many feel is urgently necessary to allow its members to. breath and grown - it will require the inntervention and energies of a Colley or an O'Dorioghue. Each has much ein his plate already.
Meanwhile, what of the proposals being considered this week by members of the IPOEU? They are good prooposals, preserving dignity on each side, and a fair basis for a return to work. The two elements they provide is speed in terms of processing .the productivity claim within two months, and discussion in terms of sorting out areas of new disputed work. They could have come long ago, and the members of the IPOEU will at least be happy they have come now. But what of the future? Will this government take the bold step that alone will release the Irish Telecommunications system into the free air that it needs, free from the civil service and all its trappings? Or will we all just hunker down to our crossed lines and engaged tones and periodic strikes and rail angrily against the wind?